Build it and they will come…

by Mike Geniella, December 22, 2009

The state’s nearly $120 million plan to build a new Mendocino County Courthouse is shaping up to be the single biggest  investment ever in Ukiah’s downtown.

It presents an opportunity to rectify one of the county’s worst moves, the destruction a half century ago of an historic and beautiful brick courthouse and its replacement with a 1950s institutional blob in Ukiah’s center. That blunder ranks right up there with county leaders’ decision in the same era to pass on being the local sponsor of the federal project to build Coyote Dam upstream, an unwise choice that forever turned control over the bulk of Russian River water resources to the Sonoma County Water Agency in Santa Rosa. Some longtime residents might argue that the county decision to not buy the old Mendocino State Hospital – now the City of 10,000 Buddhas - for a measly $1 and turn it into a community college campus ranks high on the same list.

This time, let’s get it right. Who knows how long it might be before such a huge investment of taxpayer dollars is available.

A new courthouse, well-designed and located with the town’s future in mind, will do for Ukiah what no retail shopping complex could ever do. No, it won’t provide massive infusions of sales tax revenue or property tax dollars to city coffers. But the courthouse project can keep downtown alive, and serve as a reminder that sometimes the “public good” is a higher charge.

The site of the new courthouse is still uncertain, although the preferred location appears to be an 11-acre site along Perkins Street east of Main Street. The property surrounds Ukiah’s historic railroad station. The land is already owned by a public entity – the North Coast Railroad Authority.  State and federal agencies would have to sign off on any land sale among the public agencies. Also, how much it might cost to clean the site of potential contaminants from its railroad days is unclear.

City and county representatives will be meeting regularly with state officials over the next several weeks to resolve those and other issues before formally selecting a site. Presumably public hearings will be conducted on any project before dirt is moved.

The location of a new courthouse and how the site can be effectively linked to the downtown shopping district is paramount. It’s probably the only chance in the foreseeable future to give downtown a chance to survive the onslaught of big box retailers and other commercial ventures scattered throughout the Ukiah Valley. Already downtown is being battered by the the Wal-Mart-anchored Redwood Business Park, the Pear Tree Shopping Center with J.C. Penney’s, Kohl’s and the Home Depot, and a slew of smaller retail developments. What would a Costco or Target do?

No one expects major retailers to locate downtown as they once did. But for downtown to continue to evolve into the best alternative - a specialty shopping, dining and entertainment district - it must have a draw.

A new courthouse could not only help a congested local criminal justice system become more efficient, it could also serve as the “build it and they will come” incentive for local residents to continue patronizing downtown.

Naturally concerns about location will soon be followed by design issues.

The last thing Ukiah’s downtown deserves is a costly public showcase that doesn’t fit. Just stand across from the current courthouse on any side except School Street and take a look. Even coordinated color schemes, lovingly maintained magnolia trees and bushy camellia bushes still can’t hide the monstrosity that the building is. The fate of the current courthouse is unknown, but surely there won’t be a clamor among local preservationists over the possible demolition of this eyesore.

The public needs to closely monitor this rare investment opportunity. A huge amount of taxpayers’ dollars are at stake, as well as the fate of a downtown still worth saving.

You can contact Mike Geniella at mgeniella@gmail.com.

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